Land of the Freak

What America’s Got Talent says about America.

America’s Got Talent

America’s Got Talent (NBC, check local listings) finds Regis Philbin in top form. Free from the cranky-dad shtick he affects on Live With Regis and Kelly, and unencumbered by the grating catch-phraseology of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, he’s warm, quick, and concise. If our republic is to indulge in a summer fling with the synthesis of American Idol and The Gong Show—and we are: Talent, created by Idol’s Simon Cowell, is collecting healthy audiences in its initial run—then Regis is the only man for the job. The implicit promise in casting Regis is that the show will be good fun for the whole family, and the show delivers.

That many of the contestants in this talent show are not very good at all isn’t the stumbling block it might be. On the evidence, America does not got talent. It does, however, got a ton of America, and that’s why the show’s a hit. Last night, a pre-performance profile of At Last, a quartet of Asian-American crooners from Los Angeles, played up the sons-of-immigrants angle with brio. Further, and contrary to what some may believe, At Last didn’t then murder “Let’s Stay Together” when covering Al Green; Alan Dershowitz could easily help them plea to manslaughter in the second degree.

Similarly, Natasha Le, an 8-year-old pianist with a Korean stage mom, was born to embody the American Dream. While there was nothing unfavorable in Natasha’s interpretation of a selection from J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, we can surely all agree that it lacked the emotive quality of Angela Hewitt, the scientifically precise articulation of Rosalyn Tureck, and the spectral festivity of Glenn Gould. Still, the girl is cute.

Then there is Leonid the Magnificent. I didn’t catch which country Leonid hails from, but he did not feel free to be “flamboyant” there. “Wow, there’s real freedom here, and I like it,” he said. On an earlier episode, Leonid expressed his freedom from taste by wearing an outfit consisting of gladiatorial underwear, angel’s wings, Bowie-style spangled platform boots, and blinding-bright eyeliner. He was admirably defiant when told, last night, that his act was worthless.

Elsewhere, the native-born Bobby Badfingers—”the world’s only professional snappist,” or so he claims—shares a tale that combines triumph over adversity and the humble acceptance of his God-given skills. As a child, he suffered from ADHD and was “in and out of trouble”—until he discovered that he was born to snap. Even then, he had to confront a repressive home atmosphere: “My parents thought I was pretty cool at first. But after a while they made me wear gloves in the car.” To be clear: This man apparently supports himself by snapping and dancing at birthdays and bar mitzvahs.

Your judges are the darling R&B singer Brandy, erstwhile Baywatch star David Hasselhoff, and the British journalist Piers Moron. Rather, Piers Morgan. He’s only called Piers Moron by other British journalists critical of his professional ethics, and whatever his name is, he’s got a good withering sneer. Hasselhoff appears to be on something. I do not mean to imply that the actor is actually intoxicated on-air, just to convey the edge in his voice, the glassiness of his eyes, and the grinding quality of his grin. Brandy is the local voice of reason.

Last night, Brandy, who of course deserves better, had to confront ana cappella girl-group called N’versity *. (Asked about their tremendously awful name, one girl told viewers that they’d “actually prayed about it.” We’re sure you did, dear, but to whom?) It happens that the 16- and 17-year-old girls in N’versity take their cues on attire from Gwen Stefani, Ashlee Simpson, and, foremost, the Pussycat Dolls. Referencing the Supremes, Brandy made an incisive comment about girl-group “chemistry” and also gave some notes on costume: “They’re trying too hard with the clothes.” Hasselhoff, now wearing glasses, appraised the jailbait through smoked lenses and begged to differ. Moron was unfavorable and direct, and the camera pulled in real tight when N’versity wiped its tears away.

Correction, July 21, 2006: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to the group “N’Versity” as “Diversity.”